“We Afghans think that Europe is Paradise, but it’s just not true.”
It looks like fun: Hayatullah Hooman has selfies of himself on ski slopes, playing football, relaxing at festivals, and posing artistically on the shores of a lake.
But this would-be refugee is now back in Kabul, after nearly a year spent trying to settle in Sweden.
“I had heard that Sweden was good for refugees,” he said, in an interview with Paiwandgah in Kabul. “I’d been told that they gave you residency after one or two years. I wanted to get work so I could support my family.”
Hooman is a graduate of Kabul University, with a major in history. His dream was to get a graduate degree abroad, then perhaps come back to Afghanistan once things settled down.
He took the long road. After paying $8,000 to a people smuggler, he went to Pakistan, where he was taken through Iran to Turkey, then across to Greece. From there he could travel more freely, since he was now in the European Union. One smuggler would hand him off to another at the border, as he made his way by truck, train, bus and motorcycle through Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary, Austria, Germany, and Denmark, finally reaching his goal, Sweden, after several months.
“I am a second Marco Polo,” he laughed.
Hooman documented his travels meticulously — he has more than 600 photos on his smart phone.
But the broad smiles and exquisite scenery are deceptive: Hooman was not really enjoying himself much at all.
“I did not find such a wonderful place there,” he sighed. “We Afghans think that Europe is paradise. I want to tell people this is not true.”
Hooman does not have tales of terror regarding the crossing, nor did he face horrific conditions at the detention center where he landed when he reached Sweden. Everything was “cool” he said, at least, at first.
“I saw that the camp for minors was better,” he says with a grin. “They had better food, there were doctors for the kids, and sports. They gave us bus cards and sent us to school.”
So this enterprising 23-year-old college graduate told the immigration authorities that he was 17, and had not finished high school.
Once his Swedish was up to speed, Hooman found himself in the 9th grade.
“I learned lots of things,” he laughed.
But reality soon sank in.
“I wanted to get a job,” he sighed. “It was taking lots of time.”
Once Hooman celebrated his “18th” birthday, he was transferred to the men’s camp, where, he says, conditions were not as comfortable.
“They just gave you 1,000 krona (about $124) per month for soap, shampoo, etc.” he said. “The food was not good. if you were sick, it could take a month or more to get to a doctor. In a month you could be dead.”
He also learned that his dreams of a quick residency permit were likely to be dashed.
“They told me that it would take me two years for a residency letter,” he said. “And after that it could take another four or five years to get a job. I didn’t want to waste my time.”
Hooman called his parents for advice.
“They told me, if you can find a way to stay and get a Master’s degree, then do it,” he recalls. “But if I was going to have to repeat school, then I should come home.”
He finally came clean with the migration authorities — he said he was actually looking for a graduate program in history. They offered to help, he said, but by that time he was ready to call a halt to his experiment in international living.
“I had lots of depression in Sweden,” he said. “I really wanted to come back.”
So back he came, only to find that the problems he had been fleeing were, if anything, worse.
“The government is always lying to the people,” he said. “It cannot pave the way for people to stay.”
He has been looking for work, combing job boards on websites, sending his CV to anyplace that looks promising. So far he has not had any hits. It is this lack of work that is driving most Afghans abroad, he insists.
“More than 90 percent of those who are leaving are going to find work,” he said. “One member of the family will go and send money home.”
He airily dismisses claims that the stream of migrants is felling oppression and danger.
“Afghanistan has been at war for 100 years,” he shrugged. “What’s the problem?”
The stream of Afghan migrants is turning into a flood. According to UNHCR, more than 200,000 Afghans left their homeland for Europe last year, with 2016 likely to see an even higher number risking their lives for their dream of security and prosperity. Afghans make up the second largest group of asylum seekers (after Syrians).
Hooman is doing his part to stop it.
“I told my uncle’s sons not to go, but they would not listen,” he said. “They went to Germany, and they, too, came back.”
Some Afghans are, indeed, returning. The International Organization for Migration reports that in the first quarter of 2016, 1400 came back to Afghanistan, a marked increase over 2015, when just over 1400 returned in the entire year.
But the trickle of returnees is still infinitesimal compared to the outflow.
Hooman was paid $3,000 by Swedish migration to return to Afghanistan. It was not enough to cover his costs in seeking migration, but at least he was home.
Now he is spreading the word. “I was a guest on Maiwand Television,” he said proudly, referring to a local Afghan station. Then he laughed. “Unfortunately, it was when Kabul had no electricity.”
There have been many efforts to keep Afghans from leaving. The government has launched its “Stay With Me” campaign
while the country’s president has been campaigning in his own typically aggressive way.
“A country does not survive by the best attempting to flee,” he told the BBC in March, condemning those on whom Afghanistan had spent “millions of dollars” who were now running away “under the slightest pressure.”
“I have no sympathy,” he said.
Destination countries has also tried to discourage potential migrants, with posters and websites designed to disabuse Afghans of rosy notions about migration.
But so far little seems to be slowing the tide.
Hooman hopes his frank assessment of the situation will persuade some of his compatriots not to undertake the journey.
He is also getting his message across on Facebook and Twitter, and intends to write a book about his travels.
“I took a pen and notebook with me,” he said. “I wrote down everything that happened to me. I would like to publish it. people here think that Europe is a paradise, but I want to place all the truth in my book.”